Last month, the COP26 President and Conservative cabinet minister Alok Sharma set out his four priorities for this year’s United Nations Climate Summit.
Writing in the Guardian, Sharma spoke of the need to ‘take action today’, finishing with a rallying call to turn ‘ambition into action’, because this is ‘our last chance – and we must take it.’
Sharma is right. According to the 2018 IPCC report on climate change, humanity has twelve years to take action – this is our last decade to avert catastrophe, and since global CO2 emissions continue to rise, action must begin at COP26.
As co-hosts, Britain could break up the decades of missed targets and get us back on track with net-zero emissions, limiting the global rise in temperature to 1.5°C and curbing the worst effects of climate crisis.
But that’s about all Sharma got right. If the government’s track record on the climate are anything to go by, there is a very dangerous possibility that this summit will be more of the same – half-hearted targets, broken promises, undemocratic decision-making, and unjust outcomes.
It’s down to climate activists and the labour movement to ensure this isn’t the case. Historically, COP conferences have provided a focal point for climate movements. COP26 must build on and go beyond this.
We live in a different world than that which existed during the last talks. Re-energised by the youth strikes for climate, Extinction Rebellion, and the campaign for a socialist Green New Deal, our climate movement is much stronger.
We’re also in the midst of another global crisis—the Covid-19 pandemic—which has demonstrated the painful realities of government inaction to billions of people.
In this time of crisis, we can and must use COP26 as an opportunity to push for a transformative, accountable, democratic and just response to the climate emergency.
As much as this summit is about setting decarbonisation targets and deciding how to finance the transition, COP26 is also our opportunity to present a vision of a fair and just society after the pandemic.
As well as rapidly phasing out fossil fuels and massively investing in renewable energies to actually ‘build back better’, we must break with the system that has wreaked havoc on people and the planet and build anew.
In the same way, COP26 will also be the first major opportunity for world leaders—and the fossil fuel companies who support them—to advocate a return to the old normal. Without strong opposition, we will see that ‘build back better’ will only ever mean carrying on as before, and we must absolutely refuse this reversion as a real solution.
We must also use this summit as an opportunity to call out government inaction and hypocrisy on a global stage, ensuring that all decisions made and targets set are accountable to the people.
Left to their own devices, the Tories will likely turn COP26 into another PR stunt – an opportunity to talk up their climate credentials, brandish their ‘build back greener’ slogans, and continue to do the opposite.
We cannot let this happen. Every politician, billionaire, fossil fuel funder, and climate denier who impedes our transition to a just and fairer future, and every company that fails to take action, must face consequences.
For this to work, COP26 must also be truly democratic. Rather than let the summit become another talking shop of world leaders and billionaires who let big polluters off the hook, we need working-class solutions, led by the ordinary people and their institutions who feel the effects of climate crisis the hardest.
Only then will we be able to ensure that climate action is not co-opted to serve the interests of the capitalist elite. If this opportunity is missed, efforts to tackle the climate emergency will not only fail, but work to strengthen the interests and line the pockets of those who are causing the crisis.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, any outcomes of COP26 must centre justice – a term glaringly absent from Sharma’s four priorities. As it stands, those least responsible for climate crisis will be the ones made to pay the price, while the corporate elites who led the pitiful response to climate crisis can pay their way out of suffering its worst effects.
In South Yorkshire, we know well that Thatcher’s attack on the miners was not about ‘modernising’ the economy, but about destroying the strongest section of the labour movement – a move which has devastated entire communities for generations. There can be no decarbonisation of industries without a just transition or the creation of well-paid, unionised green jobs for workers in those communities and regions.
And as the government shows such a paucity of ambition around climate action, we can also see how our movement can mobilise around these demands. Between now and November, the Left needs to stand in solidarity with these activists. Nationally, Labour MPs must uplift the voices of the climate movement, raising its calls at every possible opportunity.
This is partially why several Labour MPs, including myself, recently set out our own alternative four COP26 priorities: that climate action must be democratic, transformative, accountable, and just. In my constituency of Sheffield Hallam, we have also started building our own Climate Manifesto for COP26, to pressure the government and strengthen the climate action movement in our own city.
To truly stop the climate crisis, we need a fundamental break from the epoch of fossil capital, and an end to the system which upholds profit maximisation as the ultimate goal. Neither Tory doublespeak nor corporate greenwashing will solve the climate crisis, as no amount of replastering can cover over the rot at the heart of finance capitalism.
In order to tackle the twin issues of climate change and inequality, which are part and parcel of capitalism, we need to build an economy that is run by and for the many. Alok Sharma is right to say that COP26 is ‘our last chance’, but our movement must also use the moment to fight for the real social transformation that the scale of the crisis deserves.